St. Peter, Minn. – Like two teams playing a game of tug-of-war, the Gustavus and St. Thomas football teams battled back-and-forth on Saturday afternoon at Hollingsworth Field. In the end, it was a 20-12 win for St. Thomas.
After the Tommies scored a touchdown late in the first quarter to take a 7-0 lead, the Gusties responded with a touchdown of their own early in the second to cut the lead to 7-6. St. Thomas found the end zone again midway through the third quarter, but Gustavus answered with more of the same in the fourth to bring the score to 13-12. After the Tommies scored midway through the final frame to go up 20-12, the Gusties drove the ball all the way down to the St. Thomas 20-yard line on the ensuing possession. The Tommie defense dug in its heels at that point and forced Gustavus to turn the ball over on downs after three straight incompletions, securing the eight point victory.
With the loss, Gustavus drops to 3-2 overall (2-2 MIAC), while St. Thomas improves to 4-1 (2-1 MIAC).
"St. Thomas is a great team," said senior linebacker Joe Haas (Mission, Kan.), "We knew that coming in, and we knew that it would be a battle all day. They capitalized on a few of their chances and we missed some of ours, which was the bottom line of the game."
Following a sloppy start to the game that featured three turnovers in the first four possessions, the Tommies took advantage of a 10-play, 45-yard drive that led to a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The drive was capped off by a one-yard touchdown on a quarterback sneak by Matt O'Connell with :48 seconds remaining in the opening frame. The drive encompassed most of the offensive production in the quarter as St. Thomas gained 69 yards of total offense compared to a meager three yards for the Gustavus offense.
However, the Gusties responded on the ensuing possession with a 12-play, 61-yard drive that found the end zone at the 10:30 mark of the second quarter. Quarterback Mitch Hendricks (So., Laporte, Minn.) kept the ball off left tackle and over the goal line to bring his team within one point with a score of 7-6, where it would remain following a missed point-after-attempt. The Gusties converted on three third downs on the drive.
"Early in the game, we struggled offensively," mentioned Hendricks. "After the first quarter, we started to find ways to attack their defense. We moved the ball and made some plays."
St. Thomas began the scoring again in the third quarter. The Tommies marched 50 yards in six plays to take a 13-6 lead on a touchdown pass from Alex Fenske, who replaced injured starting quarterback Matt O'Connell, to Nick Waldvogel. The pass was a 19-yard strike 5:57 into the second half.
Gustavus had the answer once again early in the fourth quarter. The Gusties took over at the St. Thomas 35-yard line following a Lucas Kleinschrodt (Sr., Alden, Minn.) interception at the 13:56 mark. From there, the Gustavus offense needed just three plays for Hendricks to connect with sophomore tight end Jake Douglas (Montevideo, Minn.) down the seam off a play action fake to cut the deficit to 13-12. Again the Gusties could not convert the extra point and the score remained a one-point Tommie lead.
Later in the fourth, St. Thomas tacked on what would give itself some breathing room when it caught a favorable break in the end zone. On third down and six yards to go on the Gustavus 11-yard line, quarterback Alex Fenske rolled out to the right and threw to the end zone where defensive back Zach Dilger (Jr., South St. Paul, Minn.) went up and deflected the ball away from its intended receiver. However, rather than flying out of play, the ball instead fell into the arms of Cole Kelly for the 11-yard touchdown. Following the extra point, the Tommies held an eight-point lead with 5:48 remaining.
Trailing 20-12, the Gusties would not go quietly. Facing a fourth-and-four at the his own 37-yard line and the pocket collapsing on him, quarterback Mitch Hendricks extended the play by rolling out to his right and finding Matt Boyce (So., Excelsior, Minn.) on the sideline for a 10-yard gain on the key fourth-down conversion. The pair hooked up again on the next play, a 17-yard completion to the St. Thomas 36-yard line. With the momentum on their side, the Gusties went for the homerun with a halfback pass from Jeffrey Dubose (Sr., St. Paul, Minn.)to Boyce, a play that resulted in a 15-yard pass interference penalty and placed the ball at the Tommie 21-yard line. After a one-yard pick up on first down, the St. Thomas defense dug in and got the stop it needed, forcing three consecutive incompletions, and hanging on for the eight-point win.
"It's just one of those gut-wrenching losses," said Head Coach Peter Haugen. "Our kids played really well. I can't say enough about our defense, they did some really good things today, and our offense made some really key drives when we needed to. On the last drive, we put ourselves in a position to tie the game, which is what you want to do, we just have to finish it. They are a good football team, it's what our league is built on, and it's a tough loss to take, but we will bounce back."
Defense and field position proved to be the differences in the game. With an average starting field position of their own 42-yard line, the Tommies did not score on any drive longer than 50 yards. Comparatively, the Gusties averaged starting on their own 25-yard line.
In the game, the St. Thomas defense showed its teeth, holding Gustavus to 170 yards of total offense (20 rushing, 150 passing), while the Gustavus defense put forth its best performance of the season. The Gusties held St. Thomas' MIAC second-ranked rushing offense to 142 yards and also held the Tommies to 113 yards passing for a season-low 255 yards. Gustavus also forced three turnovers on the afternoon. Joe Haas led the way with 13 tackles (7 solo), three of which went for losses, and forced a fumble. Lucas Kleinschrodt also had a big day on defense, racking up seven tackles (4 solo) to go along with two fumble recoveries and an interception. The last time a Gustie defender came away with three turnovers in a game was all the way back on Nov. 15th, 2008 when Mike Fabel '09 intercepted three passes against Concordia.
"They've been playing well for four weeks," said Haugen of his defense. "They have been building some confidence over that period of time, and we have defended the run really well, which was the case again today. We got a bad bounce there at the end of the game when we make a nice play on the ball and it ends up getting tipped into their guy's hands, but that's football. There's no question that our guys played their tails off."
Offensively, quarterback Mitch Hendricks completed 17-of-37 passes for 150 yards with a touchdown as well as an interception. His favorite target was once again Matt Boyce, who caught six balls for 65 yards. The MIAC's second-leading rusher coming into the day, Jeffrey Dubose, was held in check on the ground. The senior was held to just 48 yards on 21 carries for an average of 2.3 yards per carry. His 48-yard total is the lowest since last season when he was held to 18 yards rushing on seven carries before being injured in a 28-14 loss at St. Thomas.
The Gusties will travel to Valley City, N.D. next Saturday, Oct. 19th, for a non-conference match up with Valley City State University, the 16th-ranked team in NAIA. Kick off for that game is set for 1:00 p.m.
"It's been a mantra of our team this year to take one snap at a time and win every down," finished Haas. "This is a tough loss, but it doesn't change the way we are going to play the rest of the season. Every snap is a new play. We are going to keep working hard to get ready for Valley City next week."
"Well you need to stay consistent," agreed Haugen. "That's what you have to do. You have to keep fighting. We talk about consistency in everything we do; how we prepare, how we practice, and how we play. That's what good football teams do and that's what we will expect heading into next week."